Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Ultimate Survival Alaska Season 3: Same Drama, Different Format

This past Sunday, we saw the return of Ultimate Survival Alaska on the National Geographic Channel for a third season. This post just reflects my thoughts on what I saw, for what it’s worth.


Initially I was a big fan of the show, or more precisely of the idea of the show. Too many of the current survival shows are just scripted nonsense, teaching skills which while entertaining are largely inapplicable in a real survival situation, let alone general time spent in the wilderness. That is why I was excited when Ultimate Survival Alaska first went into production. The way the show was described to me was that it would have a group of people who had to travel through the wilderness to achieve an objective while carrying all of the gear they would need for the whole journey on their backs, having only minimal food. I though the emphasis on mobility, carrying your own gear, and lack of competition would demonstrate some actually usable skills and gear selection methodology.

The show however quickly devolved into a staged competition between teams. The gear people carried kept changing from episode to episode, and the producers were working over time to create drama, with every slip and stumble being set to dramatic music and cut half way as a transition into a commercial brake. On top of that the teams were clearly pushed to perform certain “exciting” tasks each episode. Somehow, no matter where they traveled, they would have to repel off something or climb something, even if it was the worse option available.

So, we are now back for season three. On the upside, the show has stopped pretending to have anything to do with survival. The concept was put on back burner last season when the show was turned into an adventure race, but this season it is not even mentioned. This season is purely a race between four teams. It’s not what I hoped the show would be, but at least there is less pretending. On the down side, the same over the top drama and staged antics persist.

Ultimate Survival Alaska

You can see this season’s teams in the above picture. One of the aspects about this show that I still like is that all of the team members are experienced outdoorsmen. In a surprising turn for such shows, all of the participants have serious credentials under their belts.

This season the competition again seems to be between Team Endurance and the Military Team, which were minutes apart from each other during the first two stages of the race. Team Alaska has three very experienced mountaineers on it, but Marty Raney just doesn’t seem to have enough in his battery to keep up and make the team competitive. He adds a lot of character to the show, along with some bizarre gear choices, but poor gear selection along with too many miles under his belt make him the team’s boat anchor. Lastly, Team Lower 48 seems to serve no other function so far than to embarrass the lower 48 states. Team member James Sweeney seems to have serious anger management issues, or possible some type of substance abuse problem, and just about every scene featuring the team is composed of him being an all around poor example of a human being.

The most interesting part of the show for me was seeing this season’s gear selection. While in prior seasons the teams were more diverse, this season the gear choices seem to have converged, possibly because we have so many returning contestants who have already figured out what works and what doesn’t.

Everyone wore mountaineering boots. I saw a few Nepal Evos and Baturas and a pair of plastic boots. Everyone seemed to have a pair of ice tools, and the military team was heavily loaded with commercially available gear, from packs to clothing. The only outlier was again, Marty Raney, sporting a wooden pack frame complete with a gold sifting pan hanging from the back. Luckily when it came time to actually ski, he got rid of the pair of old wooden skis he had sticking from his pack and put on the functional pair that was provided.

Anyway, still a fun show to watch. I look forward to seeing who wins.

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